Rome is, itself, a paradox. Ancient basilicas stand guard as monuments to Christianity, even as sirens and car horns remind us that peace can be fleeting.
Still, it is possible to find. In an era where war tears at so many countries, record numbers of people are making pilgrimages; one in three according to the United Nations.
But all human beings seek significance. We yearn for connection and joy.
An hour outside Rome is the town of Subiaco, where Saint Benedict lived in a cave for three years at the end of the fifth century. His impulse to flee a Rome that had descended into decadence led him to live a monastic life – his only food coming from hermits who lowered baskets into his underground sanctuary.
Benedict started the monastic tradition. His rules for a life of prayer, work (benefitting others, not just ourselves) and balance form the foundation for Christian living – even today.
“It’s a kind of self help book, in some ways,” says Robert White with the Lay Center in Rome. “A guide for living in civility and under the rule of God.”
Solitude, he says, doesn’t have to mean total seclusion. “It’s not so much the cave, it’s finding a place where you can really confront yourself without all the distractions that prevent us from looking at ourselves in the mirror.”
Romans had a word for this – fuga mundi, or flight from the world. While the world is God’s sacred creation and inherently good, the things we do in the world – the sinfulness – is bad.
“Western civilization survived because of Monastic Rule and monasteries,” says White. “The Abbots protected the people who fled the barbarism of invaders who filled the void after the fall of Rome.” He says even today, the insights into Monastic Rule are the basis for western political and cultural thought.
“People see in it the wisdom of this man. It’s still immensely popular because of the balance of life and purpose.”
White says the Rule gives you guidelines while allowing for individuality. It lets you be you and me be me. It inspires us to take Christian life seriously, as monks or as lay people.
Today, the cave where Saint Benedict lived and prayed is a UN World Heritage Site. Open for anyone making the journey to the mountains above this picturesque Italian village, the cave is enshrined by the Monastery of Saint Benedict.
“The cave is where Benedict comes to know himself as God knows him,” says White. “For Benedict, the principal work of life was being obedient to God. He saw this as a process.”
White says the foundational struggle for us is to learn obedience. “As Christians, we are called to be obedient. It’s a kind of suffering – the suffering that comes from learning to overcome our own ego.”
To find balance, fulfillment and joy, White says we must find our own cave. “The cave is where Benedict comes to know himself as God knows him.” – Ginny Prior
The Monastic Rule calls for Stability, Conversion and Obedience. See more, here.
Read a homily delivered by Father Mike Russo at the site of Benedict’s cave here.